Heath Ledger – An Icon is Born

An icon along the lines of James Dean, I mean. The association is inevitable, and already Heath Ledger is being raised to the pantheon of celebrities who tragically die young and full of apparent promise, and whose iconic image is forever frozen in time. More than a half century after his death, James Dean is still one of the most recognized 20th century images of youthful rebellion “without a cause”, a concept from a more innocent age.

In many ways, the comparison is unfair to Mr. Ledger. I have the impression that he was more sensitive, intelligent and artistically courageous than Dean, although they both played brooding young men. Ledger seemed to have a wider range than Dean’s pouty, cigarette-dangling-from-the-lip juvenile delinquents, which has since become a cliché.

I only saw one of Ledger’s movies in full, the breakthrough film “Brokeback Mountain”. I caught snatches of the breezy “A Knight’s Tale”, the formulaic “The Patriot” and “Casanova” (I think he did “Casanova” to dispel any gay vibes that might cling to him after “Brokeback”) on cable, and “Monsters’ Ball” was not really his movie but Halle Berry’s.

I enjoyed his performance and the movie in general, to the mild consternation of my homophobic friends. It was a tragic love story between Marlboro men, simply and beautifully told by Ang Lee. That Larry McMurtry was one of the screenwriters must have predisposed me to like the film. I loved McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” and the film adaptations of his novels (“The Last Picture show” directed by Peter Bogdanovich featuring a young Cybill Sheppard , “Terms of Endearment”).

Without a doubt, Ennis Del Mar, the taciturn and lonesome cowboy who found love in the arms of the playful but self-destructive Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) , is the defining role of Ledger’s truncated career.

As observed by A.O. Scott in the New York Times:

“Outwardly, Ennis presents a familiar image of rough-hewn Western masculinity, and the longing that surges under his taciturn demeanor does not so much contradict this image as help to explain it. Ennis’s love for Jack Twist, whom he meets tending sheep on a Wyoming mountaintop in the early 1960s, takes Ennis by surprise and throws him permanently off balance. His lifelong silence, the film suggests, is less a sign of strength than of cowardice, a crippling inability to acknowledge or communicate the truth of his own feelings.

What made the performance so remarkable was that Mr. Ledger, without betraying Ennis’s dignity or his reserve, was nonetheless able to convey that truth to the audience. This kind of sensitivity – the ability to signal an inner emotional state without overtly showing it – is what distinguishes great screen acting from movie-star posing. And while Mr. Ledger was handsome enough, and famous enough, to be called a movie star, he was serious enough, and smart enough, to be suspicious of deploying his charisma too easily or cheaply.

In retrospect the best thing that happened to him – the lucky break for his admirers, at any rate –may have been his disinclination to realize his apparent movie-star potential.”

What makes his death all the more baffling is that he did not fit the stereotype of the hard-drinking and brawling Aussie actors, like Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe (all the way back to Errol Flynn actually), although he had the usual run-ins with the paparazzi. James Dean’s love of fast living and faster cars did him in. Ledger seemed like a regular guy, pushing his baby daughter around on a stroller with his ex-girlfriend and “Brokeback” co-star, Michelle Williams. That he died of an apparent unintentional overdose is just sad.


His last role in the can was that of the psychopathic Joker in “The Dark Knight”, the latest offering of the Batman franchise. His death almost guarantees that the movie will be a monster hit. And decades from now, his heirs will still be earning royalties from his handsome visage, forever 28.

This early, some are turning Ledger’s death into a business.

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